Author: Gordon Platt

WAITING IN THE WINGS

Egemen Bagis, chief negotiator, says the country’s reform efforts will pay off and admits that Turkey has made some mistakes in the past.

By Gordon Platt

Turkey somberly marked the 50th anniversary in July of its first application to formally integrate with Europe. “The occasion was not a cause for celebration,” says Egemen Bagis, minister for EU affairs and chief negotiator. “It took my country 45 years just to get a date.”

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan selected Bagis in January 2009 as the country’s first full-time EU accession negotiator with the rank of state minister, in a move to rejuvenate the slow-moving process. Bagis, a member of parliament representing Istanbul, says he is optimistic that Turkey will eventually be allowed to enter the European Union. “Every country that started EU accession talks has completed them,” he says. “There have been no exceptions.”

The Council of Europe admitted Turkey as a full member in August 1949, and 10 years later Turkey applied for associate member status in the European Economic Community, a predecessor of the EU. It was not until the Brussels summit in December 2004 that EU leaders agreed to start accession negotiations with Turkey on October 3, 2005.

“Eighteen million East Germans became members overnight,” Bagis says. East Germany became part of the European Community when East and West Germany reunited on October 3, 1990. “There have been double standards on the part of the EU, but there also have been mistakes that Turkey made,” Bagis adds. “There have been coups and leaders with a lack of vision. However, two wrongs don’t make a right.”

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Bagis: Turkey is the sixth-largest economy in Europe, with the fourth-largest labor force

While the current outlook is uncertain, it seems unlikely that Turkey will enter the EU before 2015. The country’s hopes for joining did receive a boost during the April 2009 visit to Ankara of US president Barack Obama, though. Coming right after the Group of 20 summit in London, Obama’s visit solidified Turkey’s historical links with the United States and strengthened the Muslim country’s long-standing political and economic ties with the West. These ties date back to membership in NATO in 1952 and the sealing of an association agreement in 1963 with the European Community. President Obama’s trip also highlighted Turkey’s role in promoting security and stability in the volatile Middle East region and its example as a secular democracy in a Muslim country.

Bagis met one-on-one with Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, in July 2009 on the sidelines of the Croatia Summit in Dubrovnik. Bildt, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, expressed Sweden’s support for Turkey’s EU process. He said the Swedish presidency would work determinedly on that issue and would try its best to open the environment chapter, as well as the chapters on education and culture.

Since October 2005 the EU has opened 11 of 35 chapters, or policy negotiating areas, needed for Turkey to be admitted. Two of the chapters deal with closing requirements, which are automatic and do not need to be negotiated.

The 11th chapter, dealing with taxation, was opened on June 30, 2009, in the last hours of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency. Turkey has only closed talks on one chapter so far, the chapter that deals with science and research. Eight chapters have been blocked since 2006 as a result of Ankara’s refusal to allow ships from Cyprus to call at its ports. France is blocking another five chapters, and Germany supports some form of privileged partnership rather than granting Turkey full membership. Although Turkey is a key country in terms of the EU’s energy security, particularly with the recent signing of the Nabucco pipeline deal, the chapter on energy has yet to be opened.

“When you do make reforms, you can achieve a result,” Bagis says. “In the last 50 years, Turkey has changed. In 1960 there was a military coup, and a prime minister [Adnan Menderes] was executed.” Today, Turkey is a much more democratic country, and it is the 17th-largest economy in the world and the sixth-largest in Europe, with the fourth-largest labor force, Bagis says. More than 70% of the population is below the age of 40, and the average age is 28, he points out. And while Turkey has changed, Europe has also changed dramatically in the past five decades, he says. “We don’t know what will happen with our membership bid 10 years from now,” Bagis says. “We might be vetoed, and negotiations will continue, or we might follow the Norwegian model,” he says. Norway is not a member of the EU but is required to adopt much EU legislation due to its participation in the European Free Trade Association. In addition, Norway has decided not to participate in many EU programs and institutions.

“The reforms [that Turkey is making] are being conducted to increase the living standards of our own nation,” Bagis says. “As a result of the reforms, Turkey is seen as a safer haven for foreign direct investment.” FDI inflows totaled more than $22 billion in 2007, up from $2.8 billion in 2004. “Foreign investors are not seen as a threat but as an opportunity for the country to develop,” he says.

“The EU and the International Monetary Fund are really acting like dieticians,” Bagis adds. “They want us to do what is good for ourselves.” Turkey is a founding member of the IMF and the World Bank and is often cited as the most visible success story of the IMF, according to Bagis.

As Turkey jumps through hoops to improve its well being as well as its EU accession prospects, Bagis says he does not agree with those who say that Germany and France are trying to keep his country out of the EU club. There are 3 million Turks in Germany, he notes, and the northern European country is the biggest investor in Turkey. Germany also leads in trade with Turkey and in tourism, he adds.

Historically, Turkey and France have had close relations, Bagis says. Turkey named its first ambassador to France in 1483, he notes. Beginning on July 1, 2009, a Turkish cultural festival opened in Paris that will run for nine months and comprise nearly 400 events, such as concerts, exhibitions and conferences in France’s major cities. The Cultural Season of Turkey in France was organized not only by the Turkish and French governments but also by private sector organizations from both countries. The Louvre Museum will host an exhibition of kaftans, the traditional dress of the Ottoman emperors.

Attitudes in France toward Turkey are changing very rapidly, Bagis says. Two years ago 65% of the French people opposed Turkey’s accession to the EU, he says. Today, that percentage has fallen to 50%, and events such as the cultural festival will help to win the support of even more French citizens, he predicts.

Turkey is a full member of all leading European institutions but not yet of the EU itself, Bagis says. Turkey and Europe share many values and security issues and are moving closer together, he says. There are 6 million people of Turkish origin living in EU-member countries, where they are increasingly becoming assimilated. “Every day, I see this integration becoming more of a reality,” Bagis says.